A Few Words About Character Mortality & Realms of Myth

Unlike some other Swords & Sorcery roleplaying games, the options for bringing a dead character back to the world of the living are limited in RoM and are among the most rare and difficult magicks to find (being of the greatest Sphere of Power) and then learn. To make matters worse, most such magicks have only a small window of time in which they can be attempted before death becomes truly incontrovertible. The old stand-by of “resurrection” just isn’t very likely to be an option. That such an act of deific grace and intervention should have become so common in so many gamers’ medieval fantasy game worlds simply boggles the mind.

In writing Realms of Myth, I took a step back to look at the whole issue of mortality and especially the prevalence of resurrecting characters in the hobby. I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that, in the case of resurrection, such events are so incredibly huge in magnitude as to be the sort of thing that religious cults are spontaneously formed around, just like the Real World. Securing the resurrection of a dead PC, or even NPC for that matter, cannot be a service one goes to the gods to be performed on demand, much less command, not even by a holy Mystic anointed by the gods Themselves, and certainly not for any character who has not taken the time during his life to cultivate the STRONGEST ties of faith to a religion whose teachings he has adhered to faithfully and followed after the fashion of a Mystic, like a saint. Reducing resurrection to a simple mercantile transaction – rekindling of life in return for mere coin, no matter how large the sum – is nothing short of a travesty of the whole concept, the ultimate devaluing and disrespect for such an extraordinary gift. 

If the GM expects the players to believe in his world enough to game there for any extended period of time, life must be shown to be far too precious a gift to squander. Death must remain and be shown to be a deterrent to foolishness, meant to lend caution and prudence to the PCs’ actions.

IF the GM does have some PC spontaneously resurrected, it could perhaps be for a short duration only, in acknowledgement of his exemplary life and service to the gods, and only for the purpose of tying up loose ends, perhaps only for as long as needed to finish the adventure (or at most the current storyline of the campaign) in which he met his demise – or the following one, provided it is of the nature of “bringing the Bad Guy to justice who killed me” sort. Afterwards, the character should be gathered up again by a host of spirits of his god(s) and ascend (or descend, as the case may be) to his final reward. Resurrection is just too great a power to wield and a gift to be given away. It certainly shouldn’t be something the PC’s do for one another at will. It is an ability that should rightfully remain reserved for the gods (GM’s) use alone. And allowing such a service to become commonplace, even if administered by the hands of the gods, destroys the players’ respect for Death as a consequence of their characters’ actions, and compromises the respect for the gods. As if one resurrection were not a grand enough gift of the god(s) the first time, the very concept of having characters being brought back to life over and over again by the gods just doesn’t make sense – beyond that, it boggles the mind … again. The hubris in asking the gods to send someone back over and again who just can’t seem to keep himself among the living is just TOO enormous.

The gods should never be so easily tapped for favors of ANY kind, much less those of that magnitude, not even by Mystics.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Characters who are sure of their return from death usually fall prey to arrogance and foolhardiness. They may even come to expect to be resurrected after they die.

To make matters worse, the trend in characters in more modern RPG’s tends towards amped-up dynamos with portfolios of astounding and dangerous powers and abilities, obviously heroes in their own right from the get-go, head and shoulders above the commoners who surround them. This stands in stark contrast to the characters of the older games played by those of us who grew up with the hobby, which always started out as little more (very little) than average folk with nothing more than a simple desire to make something of themselves

In the old-school games, we all merely aspired to being heroes and, more importantly, many of us died valiantly trying along the way. We recognized that the world was a wide and dangerous place we had to explore and get to know. There were many foes far greater than us that we had to walk carefully around, biding our time until we had earned the skill and power necessary to face them. In our fights, when faced with inescapable death, we made our deaths count for something. Our characters were us, the underdogs, the most popular kind of heroes once we finally arrived, for we came from the same place as everyone else in the gameworld around us. We were their hope, perhaps the hope and inspiration of their children.

The characters in the more modern games commonly start play in a state noticeably above the common people around them. In some cases they are practically godlings by comparison, able to do simply awesome things. They never walked in fear into ruin, cave or dungeon dank knowing they might never come out alive. They are just so powerful right out of the box than the mainstay foes of the old games, the orcs, goblins and kobolds and other fantasy races, and especially such common but deadly Real World beasts as lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!!), are just too weak for them to bother with. By their reputations alone they attract henchmen to deal with such trivial annoyances. The old-school characters we played back in the day had a healthy respect for death and a sense of their own mortality that the newer generation just doesn’t – or just barely, in any event.

IF the characters are dropping like flies so regularly that such a holy and mystical service becomes necessary to save the players from constantly having to dive back into the PG to generate new characters, something is wrong with the way the game is being run. RoM was specifically written to give the characters a very real fighting chance from the get-go. In such circumstances either the players are doing incredibly stupid things with their characters, or the GM is killing characters off on purpose, or is completely unable to find the balance point in challenges for the character, despite the advice contained in the pages of his GHB’s, some combination thereof. There isn’t much the GM can do about foolish characters except hope they will learn to act more prudently and wisely, but the GM himself has a duty to only test the mettle of the characters in play, and to do so without actually killing them. The PC’s should not ever need such an extreme remedy as resurrection except as a result of their own folly, and foolish and/or arrogant characters shouldn’t even be candidates for such noble dispensation from the gods as resurrection in the first place.

Even the effects and availability of magickal healing have been limited  and the most complete and total of restorations removed to the highest Spheres of magick to preserve the dangers of battle. When the characters put their health at risk, no matter how worthy the cause, there must be consequences to their actions, and these should be very real and debilitating. The risks must be commensurate to the goals pursued. The ready possibility of being brought back from the dead or back from death’s doorstep, being instantaneously healed without even a residual scratch from even mortal wounds or maiming on demand, robs the players of any sense of their characters’ mortality, and with it, any sense of the weight of the consequences of their actions.

Having a character in the party who is a member of one of the magick-wielding trades has been deliberately made insufficient by design to provide the party members with protection for life and limb. To provide for those needs, such a character must be versed specifically in the magicks necessary to affect wounds and healing, yes, but those are best used in conjunction with one of the mundane healer trades, most notably Barber, Surgeon or Physician. Only then is he really equipped to work on the party’s behalf to aid his fellow PC’s to quickly recover from injury, to assess their wounds after battle to identify the most dangerously wounded, so they might survive what would otherwise be mortal wounds, or crippling or maiming blows, suffered when the characters aren’t quite quick enough on the uptake to get out of danger or in polishing off their enemies in battle. With the proper skills, a magick-wielder can lessen the severity of wounds, spreading them among generous, noble-hearted compatriots (or perhaps livestock) so they are more easily borne, and perhaps even to prevent later death from infection and creeping rot by keeping them clean, and also accelerating the rate of healing. All these magickal skills have limits, too, especially time limits in the cases of the more powerful magicks, hedging them ‘round. What are the PC’s to do when the one stumbling around Stunned from being hit or  lying on the ground senseless and mortally wounded, or unconscious from a blow to the head, is himself their healer-magician, no help to anyone, and with other party members lying direly wounded, as well? With the nearest reliable, skilled healer or magick-wielder in a village a day away, or in a town a week’s travel beyond that, what can they do? Moving the wounded may kill them.

This is all a part of the way in which the abilities and capabilities of the characters and the game system itself have been balanced, and should in no way be tampered with or altered. These facts and conditions are intended to give the PC’s pause, to give them a healthy respect for their characters and their limitations, especially their states of health and eventual mortality. Even the elfs, immortal by dint of their close bond with Spirit, unlimited in years and immune to common mortal disease, can still die, and do so more permanently in the mortal realm than any of the races of Man bearing true mortal blood. With a little caution and prudent judgement on the part of the players the magicks shouldn’t be needed to prolong the characters’ lives, but are there to provide more of a safety net to be used on occasion at need, OR to give the character’s an edge in recovery so they can come back at their foes more quickly than is likely to be expected of them.

The various healing magicks generally also carry aspects that can be used for attack in battle, but their primary purpose in the game is to be a safety net so the PC’s feel safe or confident enough go ahead and try something a little reckless now and then in the pursuit of adventure, engage in some flamboyant swashbuckling, rush headlong into battle like the heroes they are supposed to be! Safety nets can break when used over and over, however. If the PC’s get carried away with taking needless risks out of hubris acquired from surviving too many rough scrapes, they are likely to find out just what the limits of their own safety nets are.